Grand Theft Auto 5 Review: Small men in a big world
At a Glance
It’s clear what Rockstar wants GTA V to be: an elaborate playground that spoofs real life, a place where you live vicariously through three career criminals playing their parts in a moody, satirical story of crime in contemporary America.
It’s a proven formula for Grand Theft Auto games, and in the five years since GTA IV, Rockstar has again succeeded in building a virtual world that’s an absolute joy to explore. If this game was nothing but a giant sandbox to build your own adventures, I’d love it unequivocally. But the second part of that GTA formula, the bit about the satirical story, well….I’m not such a big fan of that part this time around.
The tale of Michael, Trevor, and Franklin’s partnership is an adolescent boy’s power fantasy, a ridiculous litany of rash decisions punctuated by screaming matches and fueled by rage.
GTA V introduces these men one by one, giving you a few hours to walk in each of their shoes and understand their motives. These opening acts are engaging and well-told: I sympathize with Franklin’s ambition to make a name for himself. Michael’s family, though stereotypically shallow and infantilized, are lovable monsters. Even Trevor, a sociopathic trash-talking misanthropy machine seemingly designed to inspire loathing, is sort of nice to have around as a cathartic tool—like a cheap pillow you can scream into after a shitty day.
The game bends over backwards to bring these men together, and the moments when they team up to execute complex multi-stage heists are some of the best missions in the game. But there’s bad blood between Trevor and Michael that puts them at odds, and once they start working together, every other character and relationship in the game is drowned out by their incessant fighting. It’s clear that Rockstar wrote these characters to bicker with the loving frustration of an old married couple, and sometimes it works well enough to be entertaining, but on the whole I found myself having a lot less fun with GTA V after Trevor joins the team.
Even Franklin, who makes a clear decision to partner with Michael in order to get noticed and get out of the ghetto, fades into the background as soon as Trevor shows up. I grew to like Franklin the most during my time with GTA V because the game initially portrays him as an outspoken, intelligent street soldier who also happens to be one hell of a wheelman. Sadly, during the game’s second act he devolves into a sullen third wheel who constantly complains about Trevor and Michael dragging him into dumb, dangerous jobs, yet never shows enough of a spine to actually do anything about it.
Three hoods are better than one
Having the ability to swap between Trevor, Michael and Franklin while you’re performing those jobs, often at will, affords you more opportunities to make interesting strategic decisions than any open-world game I’ve ever played. If you find yourself in Franklin’s shoes flying a stolen military helicopter while being chased by the authorities, but you hate flying, you can switch to control Michael firing a machine gun from the chopper’s back seat. The artificial intelligence is good enough that you can trust the other two men to act competently when you’re not in control, which makes the more complicated multi-character missions fun—instead of frustrating—experiences.
This new character-switching system is equally valuable outside missions; I love that when you wind up stranded in the hinterlands of Los Santos after, say, parachuting out of a stolen military aircraft, you can simply switch to another character instead of trying to hoof it back across GTA V’s massive virtual world.
The dream of LA is alive in Los Santos
And shucks, what a world to get lost in. It’s Rockstar’s greatest technological achievement to date, a virtual facsimile of Southern California rendered with exquisite detail. Los Santos is everything you want Los Angeles to be: a sun-kissed city filled with people cruising leisurely between familiar landmarks on preposterously open and navigable roadways.
It’s a joy to explore, though a little disconcerting if you spent formative years in the L.A. area, as I did. You can easily drive from a picture-perfect recreation of Griffith Observatory to LAX in under three minutes, then race through a completely empty LAX parking lot to leap your vehicle over a conveniently-placed ramp near the airport gate and do donuts on the tarmac while jetliners take off and land around you with furious noise that will, if you let it, bring to mind every bad airliner action movie you’ve ever seen. You can, if you squint, see small fountains of dirt spraying independently from of each wheel, computed and rendered with unparalleled realism by the fierce machine powering GTA V.
That Rockstar managed to build a nearly seamless virtual world of this size and get it running on game consoles that are nearly eight years old is a remarkable feat. You can walk out of Michael’s house, drive to a remote airstrip, fly a plane into the stratosphere, parachute into the sea and dive down to the ocean floor without ever seeing a loading screen. The only times I ever noticed the game pausing to load was when I opened the map, which is huge and a bit unintuitive but nevertheless serves to keep you on track by clearly demarcating the locations of missions that advance the main storyline with giant capital letters.
Still, I couldn’t help wandering off the path to investigate the mysterious question marks scattered across the mini-map. They represent the rogue’s gallery of oddballs who ask you to perform strange tasks that hearken back to Grand Theft Auto’s legacy of surreal side missions. These Strangers and Freaks missions are optional, but they include some of the most creative missions in the game and you’re missing out on something special if you skip them. They aren’t all winners, of course; for every side mission that asks you to defend yourself against comically homicidal hallucinatory clowns, there’s another that requires you to complete a boring, mundane, even borderline offensive task with an irritating character nattering in your ear. Nevertheless, I had the most fun with GTA V when I left the main storyline behind to chase down these side missions and explore the world.
The problem with GTA V is that while the scope and versimillitude of the world itself has grown by leaps and bounds, the narrative is stuck in a state of arrested development. Michael’s story—because that’s what this game is, when you get right down to it—includes moments of genuine pathos that are all but drowned out by the cacophony of rage, misogyny, and tired satire spewing out of every major character’s mouth. It’s no surprise that Michael complains bitterly about being too old for this nonsense; by the end of the game I was ready to agree with him.
GTA V seems to be written to appeal to angry disenfranchised adolescent boys: every problem is solved with lies or force, every woman is either a sex object or a nagging mother figure, and nobody really changes. Perhaps that’s a smart business decision; I was an adolescent boy myself when GTA III came out, and I’ve been a fan of the series ever since. When it comes to selling product, you could do worse than pander to angry young men.
I am truly awed by the playset Rockstar has built here. If you look to Grand Theft Auto games for an opportunity to play cops and robbers in a virtual world, GTA V is going to give you more than your money’s worth. But if you, like me, also look to Rockstar for signs that it is maturing—for storytelling that tries to be more than bad crime drama and adolescent pathos, or for a strong female character—you would be better off looking elsewhere.